Why Should I Take the FE Exam?
I’ll admit it, the FE exam can seem pretty daunting.
Last week, I discussed how difficult it can be to start anything! But who wants to take a 6-hour exam? It’s not like this is a routine operation. In college, anything more than an hour seems to be more than sufficient to test our knowledge. And even then, preparing for an hour of testing is challenging enough, in itself. Who has the time to study for something this long?
At first glance, it may seem unfathomable. Whether you’re a senior in college, a recent graduate, or someone with a family and a few years under your belt, it never seems like a good time to take this test. In future posts, I will describe a strategy for the needs of each group. But for now, let’s cover the possible reasons that you may want to consider setting your sights on your Engineer-in-Training designation. Here are my Top 7 answers to the question “why should I take the FE exam?”:
Top 7 Reasons to take the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam:
1. To get it behind you!
Where I went to school, Virginia Military Institute, we had to do a lot of things that weren’t necessarily part of that typical, fun college experience I’ve always heard about. Mandatory exercise, marching to go eat, standing around for hours for parades, and folding up our beds each morning until noon (at the earliest!). Reading this, it sounds like the EIT exam was just another “character building” exercise.
Well, yes it was just another nuisance. But looking back, I am fortunate that VMI required us to take the exam. To actively discourage us from not trying at all, we took this exam in the Fall of our senior year. If we failed, then we would be spending another 8 hours in the Spring semester taking it again. Yes, the FE exam used to be 8 hours long. So the thought of having to take the exam one more time was enough motivation to keep pushing when the exam seemed to drag on during the afternoon portion.
Think about this: when will you ever be closer to the material than when you are as a student? Unless you’re in an academic profession, the engineering you see in school is a bit removed from its practical application. If you are in the last year of college, now is the time to take the exam. Don’t even worry about the time it will take to study because you’re not going to have it and chances are, you won’t need it.
You might have read that last paragraph and said “Great! Too late for me, thanks!”. Don’t worry! Everyone that takes the Professional Engineering exam will do so outside of being a full-time student unless they’re an academic type. So, if the PE is possible with a full-time job, then so will the fundamentals exam be! Besides, you don’t want to wait until you have more responsibilities on your plate.
You already have the responsibilities, but it’s still not too late! With all the decisions you make now, you know the meaning of “opportunity cost”. I encourage some critical thinking here. It’s possible that taking this exam isn’t the best option. I had a co-worker in a later stage of her career taking the PE for her fifth time when I took mine. That doesn’t sound like fun! And there’s no judgment here about the capability of an engineer and their ability to pass the PE. We all have our priorities. And while the PE is certainly an accomplishment to be proud of, it’s not an all-encompassing measure.
I challenge you to consider your priorities and keep in mind that the FE is not impossible for you. If you’ve been in the field a few years, then passing the FE Exam is still a great addition to your accomplishments. Let’s look at some more reasons to take the exam!
2. Your annual performance agreement
Who enjoys the annual performance evaluation at work? Anyone? Do you enjoy trying to set SMART goals for a job that seems amorphous in nature? I know that difficulty. Your work doesn’t fit neatly into a box and can’t isn’t readily comparable to the work of your coworker. How are you supposed to stand out?
I’m currently working in an operations environment, directing nuclear testing and authorizing maintenance activity. The job of my coworkers is the same. Just because one of us moves more paper doesn’t make us better. What if my paper is more complex? Or what if all of the supporting organizations didn’t align until your shift ended and mine started? What if my part of the test was to do one step and wait for conditions to stabilize and your part was 40 steps of relatively simple actions? This is exhausting to think about! There are many skills for each of us to develop that could help us to stand out. One of those things is being the person with an EIT or PE designation. And getting that designation starts with the FE Exam.
If you’re staring at your performance agreement asking yourself what goals to work on, consider “Taking the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam”. Your coworkers might not be able to think of anything and their goals will be blank. But with your goal written down, you’re already on the path to a higher ranking. Plus, you’ve made yourself accountable to someone else for your goal. Accountability is a great mechanism for accomplishing any goal! Who else will hold us accountable? NCEES.
3. The FE Exam is a national standard separating you from the crowd
New colleges and universities appear to be springing up everywhere, churning out more and more graduates with degrees like you. How are employers supposed to compare hundreds of schools? One way is by the use of a national standard. That’s where the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) steps in with their FE Exam. With such a national organization, it’s possible to put everyone on a level playing field. Licensed engineers from all over the country participate in developing the Council’s standards by reviewing test questions and providing recommendations on their applicability. In the end, your employer has a quick go/no-go gauge to skip all of the academic marketing and get to the point. Some schools may attempt to teach to the test in order to boost the pass rates of their students, but a well-rounded curriculum has no need to teach in this manner.
4. We’re engineers, lifelong learning is in our blood!
It’s just what the Dean always wanted! For you to want to keep learning after you leave the classroom. I’m sure they’re proud, right? But of course, you’re a lifelong learner, you chose engineering because you want to know how things work and then design your own things. The benefits of challenging yourself with learning are numerous. I could write another post all about these benefits. However, I will cut it short for now and say this: you’re going to be learning about something anyway, you may as well put your focus to use and get your “Engineering Intern” / “Engineer-in-Training” / “Professional Engineer’ designation out of it!
5. Getting your Professional Engineering license will now just be a matter of time
Once you get your test results back from the FE exam and see that you passed, it will be great news! Not only did you get this test behind you, but you now have the confidence to repeat your success! All you need to do is obtain your required amount of qualifying experience and then you can study and apply for your PE license!
6. A higher return on investment than a master’s degree
Remember what I said about studying for an hour a day for a year. I bet you can find the time for that. Almost all of us has considered getting a master’s degree to better ourselves. If you did a part-time program, that’s three years right there and definitely more than a one-hour commitment per night.
You might still be on the fence about whether it’s better to pursue another degree or get started on your PE first by signing up for the FE exam. The best option depends on the individual and their environment.
Engineer, what are the specifications?
Think about the job that you want. Think about the people that already have jobs like that. What are their qualifications? What does their boss want in his or her employees? Is another degree actually required? Is it in the job description that HR publishes? What specific skill from a masters degree will get applied in that new job?
Many people taking the FE already have some job experience; they know best how school only gave them the vocabulary to start their jobs. Of all the college textbooks you have, pick one of them, go to a single page, one line of text. That text that you read may be the only thing among your entire curriculum that directly applies to your job in the office. Everything else becomes nice to know, something you might have to look up later. My point is this, don’t expect a school to bring upon an epiphany of where your degree will be used, so find the next job first and then pick the right course of action.
The FE, and subsequently the PE, can give you that step up in your career without taking the opportunity cost that comes with a graduate program. Notice that I said “opportunity cost”. Many will have to pay for their graduate degree, while others are fortunate enough to have an employer to pay for that monetary cost. But in either circumstance, there is an opportunity cost with the time that you’re spending. Spend wisely.
7. The FE Exam is easier than you think. Stop staring at the mountain and start your approach.
It’s time to make a choice. How many times have you considered taking the FE Exam already? How many times have you kicked yourself for postponing again and thinking even more knowledge has slipped away since school? Don’t continue languishing in the pain of procrastination here!
The problem is that you’re looking at this challenge as something that just seems like too big of a challenge to fit into your schedule. You might be thinking that only a full-time student has the time to consider all the material. But this is not the case at all. This test merely takes a matter of preparation and practice. If you can dedicate up to an hour of focused practice each day, you’ll have no problem in passing the exam a year from now (or sooner!). Throughout the course of the study, you’ll get used to solving academic problems again, become familiar with the FE Reference Manual, and gain the confidence you need to put it all together on exam day.
The solution is to get started. You’ve nearly finished this post, now make an action plan to continue. Tonight: download yourself a copy of the FE reference manual. Tomorrow: order an approved calculator (or two), and a set of practice problems that most resembles your field of study or profession.
Until you get your materials, spend your free time reviewing the NCEES requirements, exam dates, and your own schedule to determine when you will study. Go to your nearest office supply store and get any other materials you need.
Once you have your materials, it’s time to start!
Rank your subjects from “easiest to hardest” or “general information to most relevant” and start from there. This way you’ll be most familiar with the important material that matters when it comes to exam time.
Trust me, once you get started and into a routine, that pain of procrastination will be far gone and you’ll be on your way to success!
Here is a link to my favorite engineering resource, PPI. In future posts, I will describe in greater detail which materials I recommend and how I used them to pass my exams.
Is there anything stopping you from scheduling your FE Exam?